On November 1, a month before the announced release date, and because they were too excited to wait, Foxhead Books released The Drowned Library, Paul Kerschen’s (Ph.D. ’10) first collection of short stories. Even before reading it, I was already a big Paul Kerschen fan. I knew him as a Joyce scholar, a talented musician and composer, and as the person whom the English department frequently called upon to answer internet-related questions, since Paul is also a computer programmer extraordinaire. The Drowned Library only gave me more reasons to keep cheering.
For each of the stunning nine short stories, The Drowned Library thematizes a different mythological figure. Paul says he wrote The Drowned Library as “an alternative to the contemporary American style, which is so autobiographical, so concerned with expressing your own experience.” He wanted to take a page from early modern writerly practices, and use well-known stories as the occasion for experiments with form.
I had the distinct pleasure recently of talking with Paul about The Drowned Library, and about writing in general, which he calls, “the least oppressive labor I have ever performed.”
MH: What book made you want to be a literary scholar? Is it different from the book that made you want to be a writer?
PK: Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist made me want to be a writer, and being a literary scholar branched out from that. My senior year in high school we were given Portrait of the Artist. Everyone else hated Stephen. I didn’t discover you weren’t supposed to like him until later. There were levels of understanding I had to go through, but it was that particular book, and the pure linguistic inventiveness of it …
MH: In an interview with Foxhead Books, you mention that when you first began the project, you thought you were going to be writing parables. What attracted you to the parable?
PK: … The parable tends to be short. [MH chuckles] That was certainly an attraction: the compactness of it, [and] concision and compression as a virtue. I came to this project after writing a couple longer novel-length projects. I was thinking a lot about Kafka, and very, very short paragraphs that make up a short story, which state three things and imply about ninety depending on how you want to interpret it. I thought writing parables would be a useful kind of discipline to keep me from running off on too many conflicting avenues.
MH: In the same interview you say the book “ends up tracking the experimental process.” Which experiment most surprised you?
PK: I suppose they generally tended to surprise me more as you get into the book. The story “Tlaloc” … [which] starts out raising a sort of question about the protagonist, then turns into a nested story. [It] never comes around back to the beginning and just sort of stops and hangs. It ends up hanging in a way that fulfills a principle of composition.
The other one that kept surprising me was “Thoth.” It starts out with one particular conceit of very short paragraphs done as dictionary entries, [but it] needed some other element to bring the story to the close. By the end, the form itself had to change. That was certainly not something that I had planned from the start.
One thing about writing [is that] it’s like a performance, but it’s a performance for which you have infinite rehearsal time. For someone like me, I often feel awkward or inarticulate in spontaneous conversation. Being able to have the luxury of time to make sure I’m not screwing it up is sort of an attractive thing to me.
MH: In our conversation with distinguished alumn Jeff Berg (‘69) he said his conception of creativity hasn’t changed much as Chairman and CEO of ICM from when he was an undergraduate at Cal. Has yours changed?
PK: For me it’s very much been a process of getting less and less naive over time. With Portrait you start thinking Stephen is who Stephen believes himself to be. I came to Berkeley having done an MFA at Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where there are certain sorts of questions about the underlying assumptions of literature and creativity that don’t get asked. It’s very different from a Ph. D. environment [where] it’s all “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Iowa wasn’t. The sort of romantic writerly myth is in vogue there: the idea that to be a writer you go out and you experience life, and you suffer and you work to the true expression of your self. All these ideas I now understand as Romanticism, as filtered through modernism, as filtered through a romantic myth of Hemingway.
Writing isn’t only the expression of self. It’s a dialectic between self and history, or between a literary past and the social world surrounding the writer.
So the short answer is that coming out of an MFA program, you tend you think of writing as the pure unmediated expression of self. I now understand it as a much more interesting process of work within preexisting structures of language and history in order to do something that’s the latest link in the chain. That’s one reason why turning back to myth is more interesting to me, as an alternative to the contemporary American style, which is so autobiographical, so concerned with expressing your own experience; I wanted to get away from that. These are very old stories and very often-told stories.
MH: Why did you fixate on these particular figures?
PK: These figures happened to best encapsulate things I had been thinking about. Thoth is obvious enough: a god of writing. [MH: “That was my favorite one!”] There’s an edition of Derrida’s On Grammatology that has Thoth on the cover. With him, I was thinking about the materiality of language, the nature of language. Of course what’s interesting about Thoth is that in the ancient Egyptian cycles, Thoth doesn’t go on quests, he doesn’t sit in judgments. He’s just there, a god of writing that’s just there. That he exists outside time was an interesting way to describe language, a medium that’s always already there and you can’t get behind it.
In “Tlaloc”, the figure itself doesn’t play into the story, but is useful as a picture of the environment of the desert, where it takes place. I grew up in Tucson, and … after I got my MFA, I tried to move back to the desert, but I loved the environment of the city and the politics that find expression there, so I ended up going to school in Berkeley. I knew I wanted to write something about [the desert], so there was the figure of the Aztec god.
The story called “Philomela” is almost a literal translation of Ovid. With that one, I was thinking a lot of Beckett or Gertrude Stein, who worked with very short sentences and tried to reduce language to some kind of simple objecthood. Especially Beckett, who is so distrustful of language, and wants to pin words down, seemed perfect for Philomela who loses the ability to speak. [In the story] you go from the linguistic or narrative human to non-linguistic realm of humans to a non-linguistic eternal nature where everyone becomes birds, to play with the boundaries of language, to get around language.
MH: In different ways, Atlas, Eleazar, Eurystheus, Ragnarok, Thoth take up the question, “what is work?” or “what is worthwhile” or what does work do?
PK: [In graduate school] I didn’t get as deep into Marx and that realm of thinking [as others did, but] it certainly had some influence on me, and as I moved way from my MFA idea of art as the act of a solitary artist to a more complex view of language and narrative as happening within social forces, the fact of work and the necessity of work, and people always having to work for goals that are the most immediate ones, to the extent that the stories describe some kind of social reality, there was no way around it.
With “Ragnarok”, I wrote that one during a summer job, in which I was working in an office working with personality conflicts, and [I had] to deal with [them] instead of staying home with my books, which is all I wanted to do…
For “Eurystheus”, it might be the point where Hercules has to go deal with horse shit. That task is put on him as a task of humility …. If you go out and slay monsters, it’s still a warrior thing …. Even in the sources, it’s clear that this is put on him as a kind of humiliation …. He finds a way to direct the river to clean out the stable and not have to go into it. With Eurystheus as the speaker in the story, it was interesting to be able to throw out the suggestion that Hercules missed the entire point of the task, that perhaps there is something morally questionable in lacking or not being able to humble yourself to this task …. It brings up the possibility of the dignity of work even if people aren’t often given the chance to experience it. It would be a false picture of creativity that it exists totally outside the economic sphere, or that it’s not a labor in and of itself. It is the least oppressive labor I have performed….